Unconscious free will

Free will has always been thought of to be a faculty of the conscious mind. If something happens in the brain without evoking conscious events, or before associated conscious events arise, then it is said to be “automatic”, not “free”. How about we take a step back and try to make room for unconscious free will?

Free will – the ability to will, decide, act, make choices with respect to the world, and not merely because of the surroundings – is always thought to be a conscious event. From the first experiments of Benjamin Libet (see also: “Neurons and Free Will” in the References) in which a specific neural activity had happened before a participant presumably made some decision, it was generally understood that if something happens before becoming a conscious event (or: before consciousness encompasses the event), then it is not “free”, but “determined”. It is thus understood that free will, if it exist, must be a conscious event.

Let’s examine some frequent, but mundane activities that we often do, and let’s see how much conscious effort do we put into them. We can drive while talking, thinking, even texting! We can wash dishes while arguing with our spouse. We write articles, books, blog posts thinking about the message (or chocolate) that we want to convey, or how best to transcribe our thoughts into sentences… oblivious to the fact that we are pushing some buttons on the keyboard – those keys fade away from consciousness, while we immerse ourselves into the world of ideas. What else can we do? Talk to people? Sure thing! Usually not putting much effort into what exactly to say, when casually chatting. The list could go on. Of course it does not mean that all these things are happening below the level of awareness, unconsciously. But one would have to argue fiercely to convince me that we put much conscious effort (and control) to these activities, or, in other words, that we freely will them, at each step, at each moment.

We can now turn our attention to a 100 years old view of the mind – psychoanalysis – to see how such a conception of free will could be described. Psychoanalysis is a method of analyzing the mind as well as a theory of the mind. According to Sigmund Freud, the human mind consists of three parts: id – wishes, drives, emotions, desires, etc., superego – ideals that we strive to achieve, constraints imposed by the culture and religion we live in, and the like. And ego – this part of the mind, that we identify with the most, that tries to balance id and superego. Id is mostly unconscious, and ego is mostly conscious. This means that it is very easy for ego related stuff to appear in consciousness, whereas id may contain desires that we don’t know we have, memories that we have repressed from consciousness.

Here, we would like to include the faculty of free will into the sphere of power of the ego. Id is a bundle of primal forces and motivations that may sustain us and drive us, but they are seen as that – forces, or something that acts on us. Superego – the ideals, cultural forms – is seen as a bundle of ideas or “ways how to behave”. But ego – that’s where the party is. It is the ego that acts. And because the ego overlaps so strongly with consciousness, it seems to be a justified move to infer that free will ought to be conscious.

This view, even though psychoanalysis is not as popular as it used to be, still pervades our thinking. We want to think that the self – or whatever we call the conscious part of ourselves – is the source of all relevant actions, decisions, choices. Therefore we sort of define free will in such a way as to exclude any possibility that [the faculty of] will that is unconscious is also free (that is, not 100% determined by factors that are independent of ourselves, such as situation, past behaviors, and the like).

The idea that the mind is modularized is not new. Why then the perseverance in thinking that the “consciousness module”, “stuff that is conscious at the moment”, or even The Interpreter (see: “The split brain: A tale of two halves” in the References) – a process of the mind that does the talking and interpreting the world and our actions – has more to do: will, control, supervision the mental life, maybe even the sense of self?

As a side note, when we look at a specific configuration of brown and green elements we see a tree, that is, we interpret what we see, we categorize it as a tree. It happens automatically, without any conscious effort. We don’t think of this phenomenon as something that’s controlled by free will. Why then decisions should be any different?

Back to the topic: unconscious free will. When imagination is let loose, it’s not that hard to think of free will as a faculty of making choices (deciding) that is more dependent on the individual (the mind, values, motivations, ideals, etc.) than on the specific situation the individual happens to be in. If our individual does something, without much deliberation we can say that the agent has unconsciously, but freely (as environmental or situational cues are not unconditional), willed the action.

There, unconscious free will.

What about “my neurons made me do it” and “my genes made me do it” complains? It’s like saying “my hands made me kill”. The constellation of mental faculties, various ongoing phenomena, some fleeting, some more stable or long-lived, is what we are made of (see also my previous post on this topic “The “I” – an illusion or a complex dynamical system”). These mental happenings communicate with each other, and also constrain how lower level elements (neuronal ensembles, single neurons) behave. That is what brings coherence and unity to our mental lives. As to the question “where, on what level of complexity or organization, does free will operate?” the answer would probably be along the lines of: that depends on the organization with respect to which the purported freedom we characterize. Usually we think of a free will as something that goes from top to bottom, that is from higher level of organization (a coherent ensemble of neuronal structures) to lower levels (individual neurons). In the case of the whole mind, a coherent process exerting influence on its constituent elements and possibly spreading to others (associated brain areas, mental spheres) would be an agent of free will. The whole mind (mental phenomena that are in contact with each other, communicating with each other) or a part of it can exert the power of free will.

That would be all cool and dandy if not for one caveat. The communication between mental (or neuronal) phenomena does happen also between organizational levels. A high level mental phenomenon H (like “seeing a cat”) and a lower level phenomenon L (like “perception of a particular patch of shiny color”) mutually influence each other. The interpretation of a visual scene influences lower level perceptual systems, and those influence higher level ones, up to the point of categorization (and most likely even further).

Where does the action started and does it really matter? Let’s say that the ball of snow started rolling at lower level of perceptual system. The higher levels may, according to their memories, habits, heuristics, etc., modify the event of perception. In effect, one does not start running away, but recognizes that it was just a wet, shiny leaf falling from the tree. An individual recognizes that after all the work and the decision not to run for one’s life has already been made by the individual.


“Neurons and Free Will” on Conscious Entities: http://www.consciousentities.com/?p=1686

“The split brain: A tale of two halves” in Nature: http://www.nature.com/news/the-split-brain-a-tale-of-two-halves-1.10213

“The “I” – an illusion or a complex dynamical system” on Observing Ideas: https://observingideas.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/the-i-an-illusion-or-a-complex-dynamical-system/



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